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Flashback Friday: American Classic “Unchained Melody”

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Featuring Shirtless Patrick Swayze, Sam Cooke, Elvis, and a Swede.

“Unchained Melody” is one of those songs where the cover became more famous than the original. It first appeared on the soundtrack of the 1955 film Unchained performed by Todd Duncan and was nominated for an Oscar that year. If you remember it first for that appearance, then kudos to you old timer because it was The Righteous Brothers that made the most memorable version in 1965. That version would go on to appear on the soundtrack for the 1990 movie Ghost creating an iconic scene where the ghost-to-be Patrick Swayze appears behind his still living girlfriend Demi Moore as she molds pottery. It was both sexy and sad and maybe ruined pottery class for you forever.

So while not technically a 90’s song, it did get a little air play revival in the beginning of the decade. My track record for bringing you covers of 90’s songs is still in tact.

Sam Cooke (1960)

In between Todd Duncan and The Righteous Brothers, both white, soul singer Sam Cooke recorded his own version of the song. It hadn’t evolved into the bleeding heart vocals that became standard yet, so that offers something a little different.

Elvis Presley (1977)

I don’t know what kind of week you’ve had, but maybe you need to see pudgy Elvis in gold chains belt out this tune with Coca Cola cups on his piano. ‘MERICA!

Lykke Li (2017)

Perhaps because I also strongly associate Lykke Li with David Lynch, this version feels much more melodramatic even though its a bit more subdued.

 

Let me know if you have a favorite in the comments!

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  • Tom B

    The thing about that Elvis version is that, yes, it’s almost a parody of late Elvis. He’s so bloated, he’s got that impossibly 70s outfit, he can’t even use a mic stand like everyone else but instead has to have a sycophant holding the damn thing, and he sings the ever-lovin’ fuck out of it. It’s crude and glorious and probably my favorite version.

    • Mr__Neutron

      Agreed! It’s also Elvis’s last great performance–he was dead a few months later. His rendition of “Unchained Melody” was inspired by that of Roy Hamilton, one of his heroes:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8Fuesi8VcI

      Hamilton’s version was a number one R&B/top ten pop hit in 1954, the year Elvis became entranced by Roy’s stately, powerful voice. When they met in 1969 at American Sound Studios in Memphis, Elvis showed his respect by giving Roy a Barry Mann/Cynthia Weill song he’d been scheduled to record.
      In his final years, Elvis’s concerts became extremely erratic, but every so often he roused himself to powerfully perform songs he knew best from Roy Hamilton: “Hurt,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and “Unchained Melody.”

      • petesh

        Seems you’re right, thanks. Elvis to me looks scared at first, as though he wouldn’t do it justice, and then excited (little side-smiles at the band) and nervous before the big ending and gloriously happy that he nailed it. He knew. It’s such a shame that he never found a way through his addiction issues. If he had … well, Johnny Cash’s last act comes to mind.

    • dstatton

      I found it heartbreaking.

  • LeeEsq

    This might be because I’m a cis-gendered heterosexual man but there was something about Ghost that never really made sense to me. In the early part of the movie, we learn that still alive Patrick Swayze’s character is a bit emotionally unexpressive and blasé in his relationship. I guess cause he is a Yuppie Banker man or something. We latter learn that Patrick Swayze’s character got Demi Moore’s character to date him by singing “I’m Henry the Eighth, I am” until Demi Moore’s character agreed to a date. That makes no sense. A person who used something so adorkable. using TVTropes language, as dating strategy, should not have no problem with emotional expression in a relationship.

    • stepped pyramids

      “What happened to the (wo)man I fell in love with?” is one of the fundamental dramatic scenarios related to romance, though. And it’s not exactly uncommon in real life.

      • wjts

        Apropos of RM’s link below, one of my favorite Goon Show exchanges:

        Minnie: You’re not the man I used to know.
        Henry: Oh!? And who is this man you used to know?

  • wjts
  • TonyPius

    For my money the definitive piss-take on the song:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXNzE0RUvhs

  • JMP
    • wjts

      I miss Community.

      • JMP

        It’s possibly my favorite sitcom of all time, up there with 30 Rock, Cheers and the first nine seasons of The Simpsons.

        • wjts

          It’s up there. Other contenders are Father Ted, Taxi, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Black Books, Parks and Recreation, and Fawlty Towers.

        • nixnutz

          I liked it quite a bit during the first two seasons, which was the best NBC Thursday lineup ever, it was never better than my third-favorite but it was very good. But starting from about the Chang dynasty arc in season 3 I started to actively dislike it, I hoped it would get better when Harmon left but it didn’t, at all.

          For me it’s the ultimate example of something where they quintupled down on all my least favorite aspects of the show because fandom is a curse that ruins everything. Let’s abandon any semblance of humanity in our characters and just make a series of nerd references every week. And all that sixth season ultimately did was delay when Gillian Jacobs could do any worthwhile work by several years. Good cast though, Ken Jeong wore out his welcome quickly but it was great having Chevy Chase back for a while.

          • wjts

            The cracks started to show in the third season and the fourth was dire. Five and six were better with more than a few great episodes (and I liked the new characters), but it never quite got back to its late first season/second season peak.

          • JMP

            I thought the fifth season was a great return to form, despite Donald Glover leaving a third of the way through, and the hot lava, meow-meow beans and GI Joe episodes rant among the all-time greats. The sixth season was weird, after even more cast loss and you could really see how much less of a budget the show had after NBC, but it was still funny at least.

    • you win

  • Anna in PDX

    I loved this piece as a child. (born in 1968) I heard some instrumental versions – Maybe Chet Atkins? And I think I heard Sarah Vaughan? Not sure.

  • Deborah Bender

    Thank you for the Sam Cooke version. I hadn’t heard it. I think it’s beautiful.

    • stepped pyramids

      Me too.

  • DAS

    I’d never heard the Todd Duncan version. I somehow thought Sam Cooke’s was the original. The Todd Duncan version sounds almost like how I’d imagine Burl Ives would sing Unchained Melody.

  • RD

    “Mind what you’re doing with them drums! Harm can come to a young lad like that!”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqqNsyHajb0

    • wjts

      Bluebottle finishes song, waits for audience applause – not a sausage.

  • petesh

    Way O/T but possibly of some interest to those who might read this. Bill Wyman (the controversial rock writer, not the retired Stone) has worked and worked and worked and produced a controversial (!) analysis of all the Pink Floyd songs, from worst to best:
    http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/all-165-pink-floyd-songs-ranked-from-worst-to-best.html
    Loving Floyd as I do (for all their faults) I enjoyed the first few quite a bit, as invective, but I couldn’t get through it all without substantial skipping. The comments are, hmm, not supportive.

    • El Guapo

      De gustibus and all that…but yeesh, Mother at 26? My favorite track on The Wall. And Time the lowest rated track on TDSOTM? Hurm.

  • DAS

    What? No jokes about “if that’s Unchained Melody, I wonder what Chained Melody sounds like”?

  • petesh
  • petesh

    I’m fairly sure that the first version I heard was by the future British DJ Jimmy Young, who had a huge hit with it in Britain in 1955:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_kJ1A_rcKg
    However it should have been the recording, also in 1955, by Peter Sellers and the Goons, produced by the future Sir George Martin.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw_EpFOo0DE

  • JMP

    I seem to recall that there actually was a 1990 version of Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers; from what I remember, they had signed away the rights to the song like so many artists in the 50s and 60s were tricked into doing, so when it became a hit again due to Ghost they re-recorded it, leading to two versions of the same song by the same artist getting into the top 10 or 20 at the same time.

  • clay

    Tying this back to the “Greatest Music By Women” thread, Joni Mitchell does a version. It’s a bit 80’s in the production, but it’s understated and beautiful (of course):

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=sdUx9bxe3CA

  • Bonnie

    I loved that version by Sam Cooke; it gave me goosebumps. However, I am a long time fan of Elvis and, no one could sing ballads like Elvis. He had one of the finest voices ever. When I was a kid and the price of a 45 was beyond my reach, I would go to a record store and thumb through all of Sam Cooke’s albums wanting every one of them. In Seattle, I saw Elvis in person in 1972 (paid $15 for the ticket); and, then, saw him in April of 1977. He died the following August. I am an old-timer do remember the original version and many other versions up to the Righteous Brothers in 1965, my second year in college.

    • Mutaman

      “He had one of the finest voices ever.”

      this is why we pay you the big bucks

  • Mutaman

    Unchained Melody was the theme song for a 1955 movie called Unchained. It was sung by Al Hibbler. The movie stared Elroy Crazylegs Hirsch.

  • JUICY_JOEL

    “In between Todd Duncan and The Righteous Brothers, both white”

    Wait, what?

  • Michael Newsham

    When I first came to Taiwan, “Ghost” was so popular I thought ” Unchained Melody” was the national anthem.

  • First time I heard “Unchained Melody”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz0ze0lcaF8

  • McAllister Bryant

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDNWFlhrWo4&t=1s

    Used in the background for this Mercedes commercial…six or so versions.

  • Jesse

    Same year as Hamilton, the great big band singer Al Hibbler.

  • Gwai Lo, MD

    I was working with a surgeon the other day after not seeing him for a while. Recently, his grown son died under mysterious circumstances. He and his wife (who I also work with) were obviously devastated. I knew of this tragedy, but others in the particular facility we were in didn’t. And when asked how his kids were doing, he couldn’t acknowledge that one of them had recently passed on.

    That whole day the music playing was ’60s classics. “Unchained Melody” happened to come on soon after that conversation. And, probably because of its association with “Ghost,” it struck me as incredibly poignant.

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